Umm… A Year in Review

My first year in a new school! Let’s see if I can remember all of the mistakes made, lessons learned, tasks attacked, projects fled, flags planted, and strategic retreats. Above all, let’s see if I can reflect on my teaching and its impact on students.

I came in to a new school and a new position with three goals: 1) be healthy, 2) grow professionally, and 3) empower others.

So, it’s September. I sit in the auditorium and listen to speeches and welcomes as the school year begins. I meet my team of department chairs and got to know my history colleagues, cautiously at first, but more and more as the weeks and months went by. Riding a wave of change in the school, I learn about a district reorganization of grades 7 and 8 to the high school in a STEM school-within-a-school initiative. I get my iPad and look at all of my freshmen students looking back at me with their iPads in their hands. I participate in many meetings and professional development, learning to (hopefully) weave the skills of observation and evaluation into a broader repertoire of instructional leadership. At the same time, I think about my own teaching and how I can adjust it effectively to a new school community. I drive almost an hour (and an hour back) to school each day. I listen to many, many podcasts from the BBC, CSPAN, This American Life, the Moth, Radiolab, NPR and more. I think a lot, work hard, and do my best to keep all decisions guided by good intentions.

The year goes by, and day by day I get to know my students a little bit better. I try to develop a groove. A caring and engaged personality, depth, good questions, historical thinking skills and lots of patience become the ingredients I try to mix into each class.

It doesn’t always work. I find that I don’t need to focus as much on inappropriate behavior as much as I do on checking for understanding. I try to model good work habits but that doesn’t always pan out either. I create an online community using Schoology, but find that I need to do a better job to create an intrinsically engaging place for students to write, share, wonder and question history. As is the case in previous years, I rediscover how challenging good teaching can be. But I love it.

There are laughs, and there are times when I see a student struggling inside with anxiety, depression, stress and the normal difficulties of adolescence. I reach out. I try to console and guide, as best I can. Snow comes and it’s a deeply white winter. I see students grow, both physically and developmentally. I grow too. My department colleagues have become a support network for me. Sometimes we share common gripes. Other times we laugh at ourselves, or with others. We bond.

I develop a growing respect for my history colleagues. I notice patterns in practice and I try to place advice and guidance strategically. Everyone has different strengths, but one thing becomes apparent. History teachers like to talk history. They appreciate time spent focusing on teaching and instruction, specific to their discipline – and I do too. Meanwhile, the district strategic plan continues to develop. We develop an inquiry and problem/project based model for the STEM Academy. We plan for these changes by revising the schedule and remapping the building for a shared facilities plan.

Simultaneously, all teachers in the building complete the laborious task of planning and preparing for our accreditation (scheduled for October 2013). All teachers also work studiously to update curriculum into a web based mapping program called Atlas. This is a year filled with change, and the hard work to make it successful for students. I’m learning, and growing, just like a student.

Spring comes. Some project deadlines approach. The APUSH exam creeps closer every day, and I find myself fighting an old battle. In my corner, understanding. In my opponent’s corner, coverage. The students, often, become collateral damage in the process. I tell myself that I’ve learned more each year about my practice, but at times, all I have to do is look at old scars to see where I’ve been.

This year, however, I have a team with me. As a department, we decide early in the school year to focus our practice on historical thinking skills. In monthly meetings, we carve out time from school-wide agendas to have further discussions concerning the 9-12 (and quickly approaching 7-12) pathway for history courses, vertical alignment of historical thinking skills, best practices and more. We design a common mid-term exam and final for Humanities. We discuss ways in which technology (and iPads) have enhanced instruction and presented new challenges. We problem-solve.

The new evaluation system is introduced to the faculty, though I have been receiving training for months. Much still needs to be negotiated, but state law requires that we comply, even though our school is a year behind schedule. The administration also purchases a new data management and analysis system for the district. In comes PowerSchool. Out goes the DOS-built AS400. I try to stay ahead as much as possible of the wave of change. I ask questions. I attend workshops.

After the APUSH exam, I shift my course from a teacher-driven one to a student-centered model. Independent projects abound, and a lighter atmosphere of questions and research begins. We watch some movies, and talk about the plot, its context, and its sub-text for society and historians. My Humanities students are almost done with their freshmen year of high school, although there’s still work to be done. I focus more on skill-based projects while my ELA co-teacher moves from literature unit to unit. It’s a full year inclusion class, with lots of differentiation and support. I am beginning to miss the students, even before the last month of school.

Graduation comes. I learn that having a perfect 4.0 grade point average still ranks you at 74th in the graduating class. Then, in the sun, my imagination wanders. Like every adult on the field, I feel like I am part in a very important coming-of-age ritual for children. Somewhere I dream there should be village elders carving the finest bull for a feast. There should be dancing around a fire and songs chanted in a deafening symphony of voices – the whole of the community. And then, I attend an individual ceremony for each child becoming a man or woman, being received with respect, and naming themselves something unique and eternal. Suddenly, I am back in my folding chair, on the graduation field. The future is before me, and its good.

The final weeks and days are here. I begin to reflect. I haven’t blogged regularly throughout the year. Check minus. I’ve gained new colleagues and friends. Check plus. I think back on missed opportunities and second guesses, but also look at my own growth, and its ok. “Next year”, I tell myself. Ideas bloom like my backyard rosebush, all at once. Inquiry based instruction. 20% creative time for students. E-portfolios. A shared, engaging, online classroom community. Authentic assessments. Challenging ethical values in history. Field trips. Creative iPad projects. More. More. More.

I look back at the year as a whole as I sit on the 4th of July writing this. The finer details aren’t part of this reflection, which is a telescopic view of one school year. From afar, I see NEASC. iPads. STEM. A new evaluation system. APUSH. Observations. PowerSchool. Co-teaching. Writing curriculum. Humanities. Being a department chair. The commute. Late nights. New school. New colleagues. New friends. New students.

It’s been a good year.